Atlético Madrid versus Barça has been one of the most eagerly-awaited fixtures of La Liga in recent seasons but tomorrow’s head-to-head battle at the Vicente Calderón takes on new heights of importance with the two teams level on 49 points at the top of the table. Tata Martino took a final training session with the Barça players at 6 pm this evening before naming all 22 available first team players for the trip to Madrid including Ibrahim Afellay though there is still no place for Isaac Cuenca.
Since Diego Simeone took over at Atlético he has molded a team that is feared not just in Spain but in Europe too. Jupp Heynckes, Jurgen Klopp and Alex Ferguson are deserving finalists for the 2013 FIFA Coach of the Year award but I think it’s fair to say that what Simeone has achieved at Atlético, after 15 pretty barren years at the club before his arrival, is equally praiseworthy. He has instilled a steely determination in his players which has led to a strong feeling within the club that this season they really can last the pace in the title race. While the importance of tomorrow’s game is evident for both teams, for Atlético it is massive. A win for the Colchoneros would be an enormous boost to their belief, and they would arrive at the half-way point in La Liga with a three-point advantage over their nearest rival. Anything else would be a disappointment for Simeone’s men as they would see that despite their fantastic first-half of the season they were still behind Barça. If their belief takes a blow tomorrow we may see a similar story to last season with Atlético’s title challenge fading away in February and March.
Simeone will be able to field his best XI for this must-win game. Juanfran had his fifth yellow card controversially overturned and Godin has recovered from injury. It seems very probable that Atlético will line up with Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Koke, Gabi, Tiago, Arda; Diego Costa and David Villa. The doubt is whether they will play in their normal 4-4-2 shape or revert to the 4-5-1 they used against Barça in the SuperCopa with Diego Costa playing wide on the right. Costa has been in such excellent form in front of goal that Simeone will surely be tempted to play him in his normal striker’s role.
For Barça, Martino has a number of dilemmas in his team selection and even Leo Messi doesn’t seem sure of a place in the starting XI. With Pedro, Alexis and Cesc Fabregas in such good form the Barça coach may decide to start his compatriot on the bench given his recent two-month lay-off. Given the competition for places the only players who seem sure to start are Valdés, Piqué, Alba and Busquets. Dani Alves should come in at right-back but he has played very little in recent weeks and Martino may decide to continue with Montoya or employ Adriano on the right. Bartra and Mascherano are the most likely candidates to partner Piqué in defence but after his recent performances I expect the youngster to get the role. In midfield it seems Xavi is in line to start along with Busquets, given that he was rested against Getafe, with the other midfield spot going to Iniesta or Fabregas. If Martino is thinking of reserving Messi then Iniesta will start in midfield with Fabregas continuing in the false nine role. I believe the wide forward roles will go again to Pedro and Alexis which would mean Neymar also on the bench. The idea of starting both Messi and Neymar as substitutes may seem crazy but the success of the Alexis-Fabregas-Pedro forward line in recent games has been spectacular. The trio have started the last three games with Pedro and Fabregas scoring four goals each with three from Alexis in a total of eleven Barça goals in those matches.
With the history of high-scoring games between the teams I’d like to predict another six or seven-goal thriller. However, it seems unlikely that either team will be too gung-ho in their approach to the game. Simeone always plays a counter-attacking game against Barça while the pragmatist in Martino can’t fail to see that a draw would be a good result. I’m hoping Barça will sneak a victory in a tight game, perhaps with a late winner coming from a Barça substitute.
Barça’s 22-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Koke, Gabi, Tiago, Arda; Diego Costa, David Villa.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Fabregas, Pedro.
Prediction: Atlético 0 Barça 1.
Date: Saturday 11 January 2014. Kick-off 8 pm local time.